Scouting the Free Agent Market: Max Scherzer

Max Scherzer Yankees
(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Pay close attention to the wording of this quote, which surfaced in a story earlier this month about the Yankees and the free agent market, via Mark Feinsand of the Daily News:

According to a source, the Yankees have no plans to pursue either [Max] Scherzer or [Jon] Lester, the top two free agents on the market this winter. Shields, the third-best free-agent starter, is also off the Bombers’ radar, as is Sandoval, the Giants’ postseason hero who was given a $15.3 million qualifying offer by San Francisco before Monday’s deadline.

What it doesn’t say: That the Yankees have plans not to pursue these players.

Currently I have no plans to leave the house today. But if I open the fridge to make lunch and see that we’re out of turkey, I’ll probably visit the grocery story. The circumstances changed.

If I had plans not to leave the house, well, maybe I scrounge up something else for lunch. I really didn’t want to leave the house for whatever reason, so the circumstances changing doesn’t phase me. Perhaps I even accounted for there not being turkey in the fridge and adjusted accordingly before even opening the fridge.

It therefore comes as little surprise* that Jon Heyman reports that the Yankees might indeed pursue Scherzer. Between Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow and CC Sabathia‘s knee, not to mention his recently declining performance, the Yankees have huge question marks atop the rotation. Scherzer, the top-ranked free agent per MLBTR’s list (and predicted to land on the Yankees), could help carry the load if Tanaka and Sabathia falter.

*For a number of reasons.

Scherzer, the No. 11 pick in the 2006 draft, took a big step forward in 2012. While his ERA was right in line with his career average, his strikeout rate jumped to 11.1 from his 8.7 career average. He’s averaged more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings since. That set him up for his Cy Young season in 2013, followed by another high quality season in 2014.

Let’s dig in.

Ace in His Prime

It took a while for him to blossom, but Scherzer as a bona fide ace at this point in his career. After cruising to the AL Cy Young Award in 2013, capturing 28 of 30 first place votes, he followed up with a solid season and a fifth place finish in the Cy Young voting.

From a fielding independent perspective, Scherzer’s 2014 was every bit as good as his 2013. His strikeout, walk, and home run numbers remained consistent. In 2014 he made one more start than in 2013, which accounts for the 5.2-inning discrepancy. The most noticeable difference was — you must have guessed it at this point — his BABIP: .259 in 2013 vs .315 in 2014. While the .259 figure is unsustainably low, the .315 number is a bit above both his career and the league averages.

That is to say, even if he doesn’t have another monster 2013 season in him, he seems capable of exceeding his 2014 performance in the future. Entering his age 30 season, there’s every chance he has one big Cy Young season left in his arm.

Where Scherzer ranks among MLB pitchers, 2013-2014

IP 434.2 6th
K% 28.3% 3rd
ERA 3.02 11th
FIP 2.79 6th

He’s not Clayton Kershaw. He’s not Felix Hernandez. But he’s in the conversation with pretty much everyone else.

The Necessary Durability

Max Scherzer
(AP Photo)

Early in his career, Scherzer looked like he might have injury troubles. A bout of biceps tendinitis towards the end of college hurt his draft stock. Considered the top right-handed pitching prospect before the 2006 season, he was the sixth one selected in the draft. (Although can we even count the Pirates’ absurd decision to draft Brad Lincoln fourth?)

Shoulder inflammation caused Scherzer to miss time in 2008 and 2009, which perhaps led the Diamondbacks to trade him to the Tigers in exchange for Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy (from the Yankees, who received Curtis Granderson).

From there, though, Scherzer’s injury slate is as clean as you can expect from a pitcher. The shoulder problem cropped up in 2012 — the Tigers termed it fatigue — but it has had seemingly no long-term effects. Scherzer hasn’t been on the DL since the start of the 2009 season.

Scherzer also has relatively little mileage on his arm, at least when compared to other free agent pitchers. From Heyman:

One reason they like Scherzer is an unusual lack of wear and tear on his arm. For instance, he didn’t reach 1,230 innings until he was 29, compared to 26 for Sabathia, and an amazing 24 by Tanaka, who obviously started young.

Among the top free-agent pitchers, Scherzer has thrown by far the fewest pitches, with 20,954, to 26,321 for Lester, and 29,461 for James Shields.

Fly Ball Pitcher in a Small Park

If there is any negative to Scherzer, beyond the standard risk of a long-term contract to a 30-year-old, it is his fly ball tendencies. In 2013 and 2014 Scherzer had the 10th lowest ground ball rate in the majors. That might have worked well at Comerica — rotation-mate Justin Verlander induced the 17th-fewest ground balls in that span — but Yankee Stadium is a different story entirely.

Would it be sensationalist of me to point out that Phil Hughes induced the sixth-fewest ground balls in 2013-2014? That worked very well for him at Target Field, even got him a couple of down-ballot Cy Young votes. I needn’t even describe his performance at Yankee Stadium the year prior.

No, Scherzer will not go from Cy Young candidate to Phil Frickin Hughes just because he’s moving to the same park where Phil failed. But it’s something to consider.

Contract Estimates

As the #1 ranked free agent on basically everyone’s lists, Scherzer is due for quite a payday. This contract will set Scherzer, and his children, and probably his grandchildren, for life. Scherzer already rejected six years and $144 million from the Tigers. So how much more will he get?

Bowden is uncanny with his picks, and seven years at $27 million per year seems well within the realm of possibility. The last free agent starter of Scherzer’s caliber was Zack Greinke, who got six years at $24.5 million per year following the 2012 season. Perhaps the presences of Lester and Shields will keep Scherzer’s price closer to $175 or $168 million, but it’s hard to bet against the higher number at this point.

In Conclusion

The Yankees need pitching. The only starters they can reasonably pencil in on Opening Day are Michael Pineda, David Phelps, and Shane Greene. Sabathia’s knee could blow out in Spring Training. So could Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow. Since Phelps and Greene are better suited to depth roles, rather than being relied upon, bringing in two pitchers might be necessary for the Yankees this off-season.

If they want the best, Scherzer is there for the signing. It would bump up their payroll a couple orders of magnitude higher than the $189 million goal they failed to reach last off-season. But as FanGraphs writer Kiley McDaniel heard from a Yankees source: “they could break even financially with a $500 million payroll expenditure (including luxury tax).”

Missing the postseason two straight years has undoubtedly hurt the bottom line. If the Yankees are ready to spend money in order to make money, they might not have any better place to invest than Scherzer.

Thoughts two weeks into the offseason

(Justin K. Aller/Getty)
(Justin K. Aller/Getty)

Yesterday was the busiest day of the offseason so far but the Yankees were not directly involved with anything. Every move in baseball indirectly impacts every other team in some way though, plus one of New York’s division rivals made a major addition, so it’s not like yesterday’s two moves don’t matter to the Yankees. Anyway, here are some miscellaneous thoughts:

1. I think the Jason Heyward trade makes a potential Justin Upton to the Yankees trade much less likely. (To be clear, that was never rumored, I just hoped and prayed it would happen.) That doesn’t mean there’s no chance of it happening, but it was a long shot to begin with, and the odds just got even longer. Braves quasi-GM John Hart has made it clear he’s seeking pitching this winter and the Yankees don’t have much of that to give up. One year of Heyward cost four years of Shelby Miller, and I assume Upton will be similarly priced. Unless the Bombers are willing to part with Michael Pineda, I can’t see it. (Aside: Am I the only one who thinks the Cardinals giving up on Shelby Miller, who they shopped aggressively last offseason, is a red flag? Miller wasn’t all that good this year and St. Louis knows pitching. They might have serious concerns about his long-term outlook.)

2. The Russell Martin signing is a pretty nice upgrade for the Blue Jays, who finished only one game behind the Yankees in 2014. Martin’s probably never going to hit like he did this past season again — he put up a .290/.402/.430 (140 wRC+) line for the Pirates this year — but he had a 99 wRC+ from 2011-13 and is an exception defensive catcher. Toronto’s backstops had an 87 wRC+ in 2014 and were terrible at throwing out base-runners (only 20%) and framing pitches. Martin is an upgrade in every way for them and that hurts the Yankees’ chances of contention going forward. Don’t get me wrong, Martin’s not a bargain, the Blue Jays paid top dollar to get him — five years and $82M, more or less Brian McCann‘s deal — but an upgrade is an upgrade, and the Jays made what should be a significant one yesterday.

3. The Cubs had been pursuing Martin before he agreed to sign with Toronto and I suppose that could put them in the trade market for a catcher. They have a decent backstop in Wellington Castillo, so it could be they will go forward with him and were only pursing Martin because they think so highly of him. If they are in the trade market for a catcher, the Yankees could offer John Ryan Murphy as part of a package for an infielder, but he wouldn’t be the centerpiece. I highly, highly, highly doubt there’s a McCann deal to be made. Chicago was reportedly offering Martin four years and $64M, which is approximately what’s left on McCann’s deal (four years and $68M), but McCann wasn’t all that good this past season and Martin was. McCann’s no-trade clause would be an obstacle as well. Maybe the Cubbies really like Murphy. Otherwise I expect them to go after a lower priced veteran catcher if they pursue one at all.

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

4. For whatever reason, I am not at all confident the Yankees will re-sign David Robertson. I’m probably still scarred from Robinson Cano leaving last year. That was a bit different though. The Mariners made it very easy to say goodbye to Robbie with that contract. Something tells me Robertson will get a pricey but not insane contract the Yankees should totally match or beat, but won’t. I’ve got this terrible feeling that it will all play out similar to Martin’s free agency a few years ago. He hits the market, the Yankees talk about having interest in re-signing him, then bam, he agrees to contract with another club before New York even makes an offer. I dunno, maybe I’m just paranoid. Re-signing Robertson seems like a such an obvious move yet it hasn’t happened yet and that worries me.

5. So, with Martin and Victor Martinez signed, the Yankees are currently slated to have the 17th overall pick in next June’s draft. That is obviously still subject to change pending the other nine unsigned qualified free agents (including Robertson). The Yankees last picked that high back in 2005, when they took Oklahoma high school shortstop C.J. Henry with the 17th overall selection. Before that, you have to go all the way back to the 1993 draft to find the last time they picked that high. (The Yankees took Florida high school righty Matt Drews 13th overall in 1993.) I think the Yankees will keep their first rounder this offseason but that could always change in a heartbeat. Ownership could decide to sign Nelson Cruz out of the blue a la Rafael Soriano or something. That said, it’s not unrealistic to think the Yankees could end up with a top 15 draft pick in 2015. All it takes is two more qualified free agents changing hands, and I would bet on Hanley Ramirez and Max Scherzer wearing something other than a Dodgers and Tigers jerseys next year, respectively.

Update: I should note that because of protected picks, the Yankees will only climb into the top 15 if the Rays, Marlins, Padres, Braves, and/or Brewers forfeit picks to sign free agents. Possible but unlikely.

6. Thursday is the deadline for teams to set their 40-man rosters for the upcoming Rule 5 Draft. The Yankees have four open spots on the 40-man but could easily open a few more by jettisoning Zelous Wheeler, Esmil Rogers, David Huff, and/or Eury Perez. Among the team’s Rule 5 Draft eligible players this winter are Matt Tracy, Mark Montgomery, Cito Culver, Angelo Gumbs, Mason Williams, Kyle Roller, Danny Burawa, Tyler Austin, Branden Pinder, and Zach Nuding. Austin is the only one I feel 100% confident the team will protect, though I also expect the Yankees to protect two or three of those bullpen arms. Maybe Pinder and Burawa. Adding Williams to the 40-man just feels like something the Yankees would do too. They’ve been … let’s so proactive at protecting former top prospects in recent years, like Jose Campos last year. Williams has done nothing to earn a 40-man spot, but he was arguably the top prospect in the organization two years ago. If another team wants to see if he can stick as a fifth outfielder, fine, let them. I have no reason to think he can. The Yankees have those four open 40-man spots and I think they’ll use all of them, which means they’ll have to open other spots when they make moves later in the offseason.

Monday Night Open Thread

Buster Olney started his annual look at the top ten players at each position yesterday — not quite sure why he started it on a Sunday, but whatever — with the catchers and continued today with the first basemen. Both articles are Insider only. Brian McCann ranked eighth on the catcher list, behind Devin Mesoraco and Yan Gomes and ahead of Miguel Montero. That sounds about right to me. Mark Teixeira didn’t even make the first base list. Not even the honorable mention. From here on out, I’m guessing we’ll only see Yankees make the left field, center field, maybe starting pitcher (Masahiro Tanaka), and relief pitcher lists. That’s all.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Steelers and Titans are the Monday Night Football Game, plus the Nets and Rangers are playing. Ryan Callahan will be back in Madison Square Garden for the first time since being traded away last March. That’ll be neat. Talk about anything and everything right here.

Cashman says Yankees will “test the waters” with A-Rod at first base

Alex Rodriguez
(AP/Kathy Willens)

At the GM Meetings last week, Brian Cashman told Ken Davidoff the Yankees plan to “test the waters” with Alex Rodriguez at first base. Cashman mentioned the team spoke to A-Rod about possibly playing first a few weeks ago, and now it seems like something they will try in Spring Training.

“We’re going to get him exposed to [first base]. It doesn’t mean he’ll be a viable option. But we just want to test the waters on it,” said the GM. “I think there was an area of vulnerability for us last year that was really predicated because of the outfield alignment that we had. We had more outfielders than necessary because the guaranteed commitments that we had kicked in, so I couldn’t get a backup first baseman situation. But hopefully we can alleviate that this year.”

A-Rod has never played anywhere other than shortstop and third base in his career, and at this point, with two surgically repaired hips at age 39, there’s little reason to think he has the mobility to play the left side of the infield. Cashman and the Yankees insist they are not counting on Alex to play the field until he proved he can do it, which makes total sense. They re-signed Brendan Ryan to protect against Derek Jeter at short last offseason and I’m sure they’ll bring in a real third baseman this offseason.

Pure backup first basemen don’t really exist these days. It doesn’t make sense to waste one of four bench spots on a guy who can only play first. He has to be able to fill in at third base (like Eric Chavez) or in left field or something. The Yankees are stuck with A-Rod though, and if he’s not going to be able to play third regularly, maybe he can help at first. He’s a very smart and instinctual player. He might pick it up in no time. There’s no reason not to try Alex at first base at this point.

2014 Season Review: The Homegrown Outfielder

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As bad as the Yankees were in 2013, it was a very good year for Brett Gardner. Curtis Granderson‘s broken forearm and Derek Jeter‘s fractured ankle guaranteed him the everyday center field and leadoff hitter jobs, roles he had filled on an off earlier in his career. For the most part he was a number nine hitting left fielder from 2008-12. Gardner took advantage by hitting a solid .273/.344/.416 (108 wRC+) with a career-high eight homers and 24 stolen bases in 2013.

The Yankees rewarded Gardner’s strong season by … displacing him from center field and the leadoff spot by signing Jacoby Ellsbury to a gargantuan contract. Back to left field and the bottom of the order he went. But! The Yankees actually did reward Gardner’s strong season by giving him a nice four-year contract extension worth $52M in Spring Training, a few months before he was scheduled to hit free agency. Signing Ellsbury was about adding a very good player. Extending Gardner was about keeping a very good player.

Of course, things don’t always go according to plan, and Gardner wound up spending the majority of the 2014 season hitting leadoff anyway. He opened the year hitting seventh or eighth on most nights, but a combination of injuries to middle of the order hitters Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira forced Joe Girardi to bat Ellsbury third, clearing the leadoff spot for Gardner. One hundred and seven of his 141 starts this year came atop the order.

Gardner was New York’s second best player behind Robinson Cano last year, and for a big chunk of the first half, he was the team’s very best player in 2014. He hit .279/.347/.349 (100 wRC+) with a homer and seven steals in April before really hitting his stride in early-May. Starting on May 3rd — arbitrary endpoint alert! — and continuing though August 4th, a span of 82 team games, Gardner hit a stellar .292/.370/.506 (145 wRC+) with 14 homers and eleven stolen bases. Think about that for a second.

Okay, ready to continue? Miguel Cabrera hit .313/.371/.524 (147 wRC+) this past season. Gardner hit approximately that over a stretch of games equal to half a season while hitting homers at a 28-per-162-games pace. That’s a thing that actually happened. Gardner put up middle of the order numbers from the leadoff spot for a three-month chunk of time. During one series against the Rangers at the end of July, he managed to hit four homers in three games:

Date Tm Opp Rslt PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS wpa_bat” data-filter=”1″ data-name=”Win Probability Added”>Win Prob. Added
Jul 28 NYY @ TEX L,2-4 5 2 3 0 0 2 2 0 0 0 0 .276 .352 .437 .789 0.224
Jul 29 NYY @ TEX W,12-11 5 3 4 2 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 .283 .357 .455 .812 0.340
Jul 30 NYY @ TEX L,2-3 4 1 1 0 0 1 1 0 2 0 0 .283 .356 .460 .816 0.008
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/16/2014.

Two of those homers — the July 28th game — came off Yu Darvish, who Gardner had taken deep a week earlier as well. That series earned Gardner AL Player of the Week honors. On August 4th, the final day of this cherry-picked swath of games, Gardner’s season batting line sat at .286/.364/.468 (134 wRC+) with 15 homers and 18 steals in 22 attempts.

Did it last? Of course not. Gardner played through some sort of abdominal strain for most of the second half and hit a weak .159/.216/.217 (18 wRC+) in his final 40 games and 78 plate appearances of the season. That uglified his season batting line and dragged it down to .256/.327/.422 (110 wRC+) overall. That’s still pretty darn good, but not nearly as impressive as it was in early-August. The abdominal injury, which apparently was so bad it required offseason surgery, really ruined the final two months of his year.

Obviously, the power numbers were the most surprisingly part of Gardner’s season. His previous career high was eight homeruns set last summer. He more than doubled that and smashed 17 dingers in 2014. Some of them were Yankee Stadium cheapies of course, but Hit Tracker says 13 of the 17 would have been out in at least half the 30 ballparks. Gardner’s average homer distance was 385 feet, on par with Yoenis Cespedes (387.5 feet) and longer than 37-homer man Chris Carter (384.1 feet). He hit the Yankees’ very first homerun of the season — in their sixth game! — and he also hit the 15,000th homer in franchise history on September 21st. (No other team has even 14,000 dingers.)

I don’t think it’s a coincidence six of the 17 homers came within the first two pitches of the at-bat or that 13 of the 17 came on fastballs — Gardner will straight up guess fastball and try to ambush a pitch on occasion, and every so often he runs into one. That hasn’t only resulted in more homers either, this approach has led to more doubles and triples as well. Gardner and hitting coach Kevin Long acknowledged giving the ambush approach a try early last year, and look:


Source: FanGraphsBrett Gardner

Gardner’s power production has jumped noticeable the last two seasons. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still nothing more than a league-average power producer in terms of ISO, but Gardner was a pure singles hitter from 2008-12 who can now go yard if the pitcher makes a mistake or gives him the fastball he’s looking for. That makes him a lot more dangerous at the plate. I have no idea if Gardner will ever hit 17 homers again but that’s a conversation for another time. He hit them in 2014.

In the field, Gardner appeared to be something less than his usually awesome self, both according to the eye test and the various defensive stats. He wasn’t bad by any means in left field, but he went from being truly elite in 2008-12 to being just a tick better than average in 2014. That could be the result of a million things. Gardner could legitimately be losing a step in the field, or it could have been a down year defensively. Those happen just like down years at the plate. Maybe the adjustment he had to making moving back to left after playing center isn’t as easy as we think. Who knows. Either way, Gardner was an asset in the field but not otherworldly.

Overall, Gardner was again one of the team’s best players on both sides of the ball this past season. He led Yankees’ regulars in OPS (.749), OPS+ (111), SLG (!) (.422) and wRC+ (110) while ranking either second or third in homers (17), hits (142), doubles (25), steals (21), walks (56), total bases (234), AVG (.256), and OBP (.327). Had it not been for the abdominal injury, chances are Gardner would have led the team in a bunch of those other categories as well. He’s become a rock solid player for the Yankees and is a key part of the team as they try to get back to the postseason.